A bright smile forms on the face of Speech-Language Pathology senior, Lilliana Toste, as she describes the moment she found out that she was chosen as the Undergraduate Dean’s Medalist for the College of Health and Human Services.
“Oh gosh, I feel so honored and humbled,” Toste said. “It feels amazing, like I’m not even worthy. When I look back and reflect on my time at Fresno State, I see the love I try to pour into other people reflected back into me – and it makes me feel so empowered.”
Toste entered Fresno State in the fall of 2012 as a President’s Scholar in the Smittcamp Family Honors College and quickly engrained herself into campus life, joining countless clubs and organizations. Despite her already busy schedule, she received an impressive cumulative 4.0 GPA every single semester since arriving on campus. This placed her on the President’s List numerous times, among her many other notable accomplishments.
Being a proud alumni of Fresno State is a family affair for Toste, whose mother and father also graduated from the University, with degrees in accounting and dairy science, respectively. They would go on to operate their own dairy farm in the Central Valley. In fact, she credits a lot of her own success to her family and upbringing in Lemoore, California.
“I am the granddaughter of really hard-working Portuguese immigrants,” Toste said. “I feel like my culture and how I was raised – in a farming, Catholic community with faith wrapped up in values and morals – has led to my hard work ethic and success.”
Choosing to major in Speech-Language Pathology was not by chance, but a natural choice for Toste. With two younger brothers, Adam (11) and David (6), on the autism spectrum, she saw firsthand the careful and diligent way their speech-language pathologists cared for her them. That is when she decided this was a career she wanted to pursue – to serve others with communicative disorders, especially young children.
“I got to watch David’s speech-language pathologist really take David’s inability to communicate, and just overall difficulties, and turn that into a beautiful thing,” Toste said. “I always knew I wanted to do some service-oriented career. I explored maybe public policy, to be in a position of leadership where I can help people, maybe psychology so I can counsel people – then I found, through Adam, speech-language pathology and that really clicked with me because it’s so specific. I can really help a person overcome their troubles in a really personal, significant way.”
Being able to experience firsthand what families of autistic children face has been enriching for her, as it allows her to see another perspective that will no doubt play a vital role in her future career. Toste also received hands-on clinical experience in the Department of Communicative Disorders and Deaf Studies’ STARS Autism Preschool. Although clinicians are normally graduate students, she was asked to fill a role to which she happily obliged. She said the experience working with children on the autism spectrum was exhilarating and only further fueled her desire to work in that field.
“Quite simply, Lilliana is in the top 1% of students that I have had in my 17 years here at Fresno State,” said Dr. Christine Maul, assistant professor in the Department of Communicative Disorders and Deaf Studies and Lilliana’s longtime instructor. “She has a very special devotion to her chosen professional path and I know that she will be a gift to the field of speech-language pathology in general and to the clients she will serve and their families.”
Aside from her major, Toste is also passionate about service-learning, having acquired nearly 600 hours of service to the community through the Smittcamp Family Honors College and the University’s Jan and Bud Richter Center for Community Engagement and Service-learning, where she served as a student ambassador and leader. Her involvement with the Richter Center even led her over 5,000 miles away to Fiji on an international service-learning adventure where she aided in developing a community center and irrigation project for a small village.
Many of Toste’s experiences are captured in her own words through the Richter Center blog. Her words are full of compassion and admiration as she reflects on her time in the desolate, but rich in culture, country.
Toste writes, “The lesson I took from my experience that I am bringing to Fresno is this: kindness must be a culture rather than a series of acts. The vastly different culture of Fiji stole my heart and broadened my perspective. From here forward in all aspects of my life and especially when serving others, I plan to be more intentional with my words and deeds and willing to make new connections.”
Locally, Toste volunteers at Lowell Elementary and Reading and Beyond, regularly tutoring children and promoting literacy. Among her many contributions to her community, she also leads the Newman Catholic Student Association, and has volunteered countless times to feed the hungry at the Bulldog Pantry and aid the vulnerable at St. Agnes Medical Center. In addition she was personally sought out by University President Joseph Castro to serve as a student assistant in his office. She also served as a student assistant for the associate dean of the Kremen School of Education and Human Development.
Her dedication to service-learning throughout her four years on campus did not go unnoticed. In April, Toste was awarded the University Student Volunteer of the Year award. Of her award, the Richter Center said, “Lilliana’s approach to community service demonstrates a deep understanding of the reciprocal nature of impactful volunteer work. She does not enter the community looking to “fix” the broken. Rather, Lilliana approaches services as an opportunity to empower others and learn from them as she serves.”
Toste’s academic drive and passion for her chosen field, was a key component of her being chosen to join the College of Health and Human Services’ Honors Program in Collaborative Leadership during the program’s inaugural 2014-2015 academic year. In the program, she displayed optimism, enthusiasm and commitment to her studies. Working alongside her peers from various majors within the college, she was able to enhance her skills in interdisciplinary collaboration in order to address the health and social needs within the Central Valley region.
“Through all my service projects, I have honed skills such as cultural competency, interdisciplinary collaboration and efficacy in clinical approaches,” said Toste of her time in the Honors Program. “This program was truly a highlight of my college career and a memorable period of growth in collaborative leadership.”
Going forward, Toste will return to Fresno State in the fall where she will join the Speech-Language Pathology graduate program. Pursuing higher education at the University she now calls her second home, is something she looks forward to.
“I’m proud of the department and major I’ve chosen, and what I stand for now as a servant leader and up-and-coming young professional. I’ve been given this awesome tool set and I’m proud to start using it for the benefit of my university and the whole community.”
[ LISTEN to Lilliana on First Lady’s Focus radio show.]
Lilliana Toste is a candidate for the prestigious California State University, Fresno University President’s Medal, which is the highest honor the University presents to an undergraduate student. The President’s Medalist is selected from the nine undergraduate Dean’s Medalists who represent the academic colleges and schools and the Division of Student Affairs. The awardee will be announced at the University Commencement on May 21, 2016.
UPDATE: Toste was the proud recipient of the 2016 President’s Medalist award! Read more about her honor HERE. Congratulations, Lilliana, on such a well-deserved and special honor.